Wednesday, 22 October 2014

New Peter F. Hamilton covers

Tor Books have spruced up the covers for Peter F. Hamilton's novels set in his Commonwealth universe. The five novels published in the setting so far (the Commonwealth Saga duology and The Void Trilogy) have had their covers updated to match the cover of the latest book in the series, The Abyss Beyond Dreams. They will be available in the UK next month.

There's also an unusual, slightly retro feel to the spine design (nabbed from here):

All in all, interesting stuff, even if it is just two years since the last big PFH cover redesign. I'll be interested to see if his other books are also given this treatment, or if this is something reserved for just the Commonwealth books for now.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is the next book in the reading queue once I finish Kameron Hurley's excellent Infidel.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Sanderson's fantasy world was created through fractals

A while back, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson told his fans that there are 'hidden secrets' in the map of Roshar that accompanies his Stormlight Archive novels (so far, The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance). In April this year, fans at the Seventeenth Shard forum cracked one of the secrets.

Roshar is not an arbitrary artistic doodle, but is based on a Julia set, a Mandelbrot-related fractal shape. In fact, the shape of Roshar appears in the demonstration video on the related Wikipedia page and has been there since 2006, suggesting Sanderson may have simply borrowed it from that location.

This isn't the first time that a fantasy author has taken inspiration for their fantasy maps from real-world sources. Many authors tweak real maps of Europe or North America, whilst others take inspiration from nature. One fantasy novel from the 1990s, whose title I now mercifully forget, even used male genitalia as the inspiration for its landmass. There are also various mapping programmes which also use fractals to generate terrain (such as the Campaign Cartographer software family). This is the first time I've encountered a well-known fantasy author using them to generate his world, however.

Arthur C. Clarke also used Mandelbrot sets as a major theme of his 1990 novel The Ghost from the Grand Banks (arguably to the detriment of the core story, about the raising of the Titanic).

Friday, 17 October 2014

Spike picks up Kim Stanley Robinson's MARS TRILOGY for TV

Spike TV are developing a TV series based on Kim Stanley Robinson's epic Mars Trilogy of novels. The proposed TV series will take the its name from the first novel in the series, Red Mars, with Kim Stanley Robinson serving as a creative consultant.

Consisting of Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996), the trilogy spans almost two hundred years (between 2027 and 2212) and depicts the colonisation of Mars by the initial First Hundred group and subsequent waves of immigration. As the years pass, socio-economic tensions rise between the original settlers and later arrives, and between Mars and an Earth increasingly desperate to offload its bloated population (threatened by viruses and climate change) on the new world. The rising threat of war, independence and the impact of a new medical science that retards the ageing process are all key storylines in a story that involves dozens of major characters.

James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd worked on a mini-series idea based on The Mars Trilogy for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This project was not tremendously faithful to the novels - rumours abounded of a 'sexy female android' character when no such entity exists in the books - but it did wind up being developed for several years at AMC. It was not greenlit, but it did introduce Hurd to the team at AMC that eventually ended up making The Walking Dead. Five years ago, AMC resurrected the project with writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh on board (Die Hard with a Vengeance, Welcome to the Jungle, The Punisher, Armageddon), but eventually passed.

Spike TV are best-known for their reality programming, and news that this project was in development with them came as a surprise.If Spike treat the subject seriously (i.e. don't turn it into a revolutionary shoot 'em up) and put some serious money behind it, this could be both a very good TV series and mark a change in direction for the channel. The potential for this going horribly wrong is very high, however.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Sleeping Dogs

After many years in San Francisco, Wei Shen returns home to Hong Kong and is almost immediately embroiled in violence and crime. His reputation and some childhood friends see him recruited into the triad known as the Sun On Yee, but Wei is playing a dangerous game. He is also an undercover cop, striving to bring down the triad and also avoid the machinations of his own corrupt bosses. It is a difficult line to walk as the risk of discovery and being fired and arrested is constant.

Sleeping Dogs is a game that is almost cheerful in how easy it is to review. It asks the question, "Do like the Grand Theft Auto games?" If the answer is yes, than go get it. If not, than not. But the game also appeals to those who aren't so keen on the GTA games but like the basic idea and would prefer a non-American setting and more focus on melee combat. And also to those who are partial to scenes where an old grandmother tortures someone for information using her standard range of kitchen implements.

Sleeping Dogs is a violent and brutal game, sometimes in a genuine attempt to unnerve and shock, but perhaps a tad too often simply for the sake of it. It's a game that embraces the GTA structure of an open world with lots of optional stuff to do wedded to a narrative driven by cut scenes and criminal cliches. It's a game that tries awfully hard to do things differently with its invigorating and satisfying martial arts combat system, but then almost regretfully embraces tedious gunplay towards its conclusion.
The game has a curious definition of 'undercover cop'.

There is much to like here. The story is cliched and predictable (a groan-inducing wedding scene goes down near identically to a comparable scene in GTA4) but unfolds with enough swagger to make it worthwhile. The voice acting is excellent, with Will Yun Lee in particular giving Wei Shen a haunted voice that helps him stand out a little from the standard action game lead. The graphics are reasonably impressive (especially, as always, on PC), with the game's faux-Hong Kong standing out from other open world cities thanks to its bright lights and colourful backdrops. The city is also huge, with many hours of side-missions and activities (including some very enjoyable car races, although the bike handling is a little stiff) awaiting the intrepid gamer. As mentioned above, the melee combat is also tremendously enjoyable to use and spectacular to see in action. Even some of the dreaded minigames are genuinely fun, with the karaoke game being particularly bonkers.

On the downside, the gunplay is surprisingly poor. There is relatively little of it in the whole game, which is not so bad, but the endgame is completely dominated by it which is makes it a lot more annoying. The game also suffers from a really bad case of story dissonance: Wei can run civilians over, blow up cars and buses and cause quite a lot of mayhem, but the only penalty he gets is a reduction to the bonus XP available at the end of the mission. Given that Wei is a cop, this is both unconvincing and also just really weird. You can try to roleplay more as Wei the cop, avoiding the carnage, but this becomes more difficult on missions with tight time limits.

Sleeping Dogs (***½) isn't a classic of the genre, but it's solid enough. It's certainly a very large game and packs a lot of ideas and even a few fresh innovations into the GTA formula, but it's still pretty standard stuff for a game of its type. Well-executed and very solid, but rarely outstanding. The game is available now in the UK (PC, PS3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PS3, X-Box 360).

Half the World by Joe Abercrombie

The High King of the Shattered Sea is displeased with the new King of Gettland and his defiance. Forces religious and military gather to bring Gettland to heel, but the king's advisor is crafty and cunning beyond his years. Yarvi brings together a new fellowship to travel halfway across the known world to the First of All Cities and there make an audacious play for an alliance. Unfortunately, his crew consists of cutthroats, ex-criminals, disgraced boy warriors and violent murderers.

Half the World is the middle volume of The Shattered Sea and picks up several years after the end of Half a King. This novel features a structural shift from the previous one, with the narrative now divided between two new characters - Brand and Thorn - and Yarvi relegated to more of a supporting/mentor role. It's a nice structural twist that means that Yarvi's storyline continues from his previous book, but is now presented more in flashes and glimpses from the other characters. If you haven't read Half a King, you won't notice too much of this but those who have will find themselves able to follow Yarvi's story as it develops mostly off-stage.

Thorn is where much of the book's marketing has been directed and it's easy to see why. Less of a tomboy and more of a walking ball of anger, Thorn could be the milder, younger sister of Ferro (from The First Law Trilogy). Her character arc is - at least somewhat - traditional but she remains a vibrant and well-written protagonist. Brand, the young warrior disgraced for being too nice and who has to make good, is a much more standard character but Abercrombie gives him enough flair and memorable moments (including an eye-watering moment where he has to stop a ship being ported from rolling over).

There's some splendid action and some intriguing politicking, but it's the frigid atmosphere (turning more clement as our characters journey south and off the edge of the map) and the relentless pace that make this novel so successful, and more enjoyable than its forebear. Abercrombie is still working with a shorter word count than normal here and it helps maintain focus and drive. This is a 400-page novel where the pages fly by. Abercrombie is also upping his game with his prose, with some darkly delicious dialogue and more poetical moments peppering his more traditional style of black humour. Even the worldbuilding is taken up a notch, with the idea that the Shattered Sea might be a far future, post-apocalyptic part of our world developed further.

Half the World (****½) is a resounding success and an improvement on Half a King on almost every front. It will be released on 12 February 2015 in the UK and five days later in the USA. Highly recommended.

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

Temur has raised his standard at Dragon Lake, gathering forces together for a final showdown with Al-Sephehr before he can bring about his plan to resurrect the Carrion Prince. Unexpected allies join Temur, but his army is still dwarfed by that of the enemy.

Steles of the Sky concludes The Eternal Sky, Elizabeth Bear's thoughtful and intelligent epic. Inspired by the history and vistas of Central Asia, The Eternal Sky puts character and dialogue ahead of carnage and mayhem and, for those of a cliched bent, could be described as a thinking reader's fantasy. It's a restrained novel that dwells on the humanity of its characters as much as the magic and mystery, and far moreso than the action. Certainly fans of authors like Guy Gavriel Kay will find much to reward them here.

That is not to say that action is not present, and what there is well-presented, but Bear's focus lies elsewhere. The rich tapestry of varied characters that we have enjoyed in previous volumes is back, and as the storylines dovetail into one another it's interesting to see characters reacquainting themselves with one another or meeting for the first time. It's a more balanced book, with the Temur/Samarkar 'main' strolling having equal weight here with the likes of Edene, Tsering and Saadet. Bear's enviable ability to create cultures with distinct customs that are influenced by real history but are also original creations also reaches its apex here, with the differences between these groups strengthening rather than dividing them.

The characterisation is rich and nuanced (particularly of Edene, whose storyline takes a more humane turn than I was expecting) and Bear skirts the edges of 'dark' fiction without either pulling her punches or digressing into needless violence. What Bear does instead, especially with Al-Sephehr and Saadet, is hints at the darkness of the souls of her antagonists which is more difficult but ultimately more rewarding.

There are reservations: the climactic battle is over in a handful of pages and some storylines feel a little perfunctory in their resolutions. But perhaps I was expecting a more slavishly traditional fantasy novel than what we got instead, which is far more interesting, rewarding and poetical.

Steles of the Sky (****½) is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

To New York!

Next week I'll be in New York City for the NYC Comic-Con, where, courtesy of Wikia, I'll be on the only Game of Thrones panel at the event (Thursday 1.30-2.30, Empire Stage 1-E). I'll be joined by actors Kristian Nairn (Hodor) and Natalia Tena (Osha) to talk about the show, the upcoming fifth season and more.

This is my first time in the Big Apple and I have a bit more free time than I did in Chicago earlier this year, so I'll actually be doing some sightseeing! I have been informed that I will be tasting New York pizza this time around, as well as doing some rather unfortunately obvious touristy things. There will, I imagine, be photos.

Update: Natalia Tena has unfortunately pulled out of the panel, but Daniel Portman (Podrick Payne) will kindly be taking her place.

Update: Reviews

Things have been pretty quiet on the blogging front, due to life getting 'hectic' for a few months there. Things are levelling out and whilst I don't see myself returning quite to the glory days of 30+ posts a month very often, hopefully there will be an increase in more meaningful content on the blog (i.e. reviews and more substantial articles) soon.

What's in the pipeline:

Books: Books have massively fallen by the wayside in recent months, but I'm getting back on top of reading again. Expect a review of Steles of the Sky (which I started halfway across the Atlantic in April and finished last week on the sofa at home) soon. I'm already a quarter of the way through Joe Abercrombie's Half the World so that should follow relatively soon after. I also want to resume my progress through the Vorkosigan and Wild Cards series, but there'll also be reviews of books by Ian Esslemont, Peter F. Hamilton and Kameron Hurley in the offing as well.

Games: Many weeks of playing Divinity: Original Sin have left me absolutely nowhere near finishing it, and now the equally humongous Wasteland 2 is taking up a lot of my free time. Game reviews will resume once I actually manage to finish something.

TV: Thanks to multiple viewing projects going on at the same time, this is one area I've been making more notable progress. Expect reviews of Community (Season 5), True Detective (Season 1), Veep (Season 2), The Legend of Korra (Season 2) and The Walking Dead (Season 4) soon.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 6 (remastered)

When Star Trek: The Next Generation's sixth season began production, it was a busy time for the franchise. A new spin-off series, Deep Space Nine, was about to launch and air alongside TNG. Plans were being made for a new film, one that would transfer the TNG crew to the big screen. It was also the first time that a season of Star Trek would be made without any input at all from Gene Roddenberry, who had passed away early in the production of the fifth season.

Despite a lot of outside issues, TNG's penultimate season is a bit of a triumph, certainly better than the inconsistent fifth season. Things do get off to a weak start with Time's Arrow, Part II which feels like someone had an idea about doing a time travel romp in the 19th Century but never found a story to make it work. Realm of Fear - a Barclay episode about transporter phobia - never really takes off either and Man of the People is the worst episode of the series since Season 1. However, Relics, which sees the return of James Doohan as Scotty, is a fine episode and sees an upsurge in quality that lasts through most of the rest of the season. There are a few more weaker episodes - Aquiel, Quality of Life, Rascals, Birthright - but these overcome some iffy premises and scripting with good ideas and solid performances.

More interesting are the classics. Chain of Command is a superb, tense masterclass in which Patrick Stewart is tortured by David Warner for a full hour whilst the Enterprise gets a new captain who is a bit of a martinet, but who is also an effective military commander who just happens to do things differently. It's one of the few Star Trek two-parters where the two parts work well together. Tapestry, although slightly overrated, is also a tremendously good episode where Picard revisits his past and finds out how he became the man he is now.

Better still are the underrated episodes that didn't stand out so much originally but now emerge as being more interesting: True Q is the lesser Q episode of the season is still a vastly superior rewrite of Season 1's Hide and Q; Ship in a Bottle and Frame of Mind foreshadow Inception with their multiple levels of reality; Lessons is a rarely effective Picard romance episode (let down by a hugely problematic ending); Starship Mine is an effective TNG cover version of Under Siege, with Picard as Steven Segal; and Timescape is a moody, atmospheric time travel mystery with some excellent direction.

The season is let down by its trite cliffhanger in Descent, a good example of the writers finding a great image for the cliffhanger and working backwards from there to find the story and not succeeding. But for a show 150 episodes and six years into its run, it's still finding fresh takes on established tropes and the cast is working together superbly as a unit.

For this HD re-release, the show has been completely re-edited from the original film stock. A vast amount of time and money went into this, and this pays off with some spectacular effects (more impressive as most of them are the original elements, simply re-combined at a higher resolution) and an image quality that makes it look like the show was filmed yesterday. There's a few moments which haven't translated as well - the duplicate Rikers in Second Chances oddly look unconvincing, given the simplicity of the effect - but the improvement in visual quality is stunning.

The sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (****½) still finds the show at the top of its game and still generating entertaining stories delivered by a cast of seasoned performers. The season is available now on Blu-Ray in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Release date for Paul Kearney's next novel

Dark Hunters: Umbra Sumus is the title of Paul Kearney's next novel. Set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the novel expands on elements in Kearney's previous short story in the setting, The Last Detail.

The sigil of the Dark Hunters, for in the grim darkness of the far future, where a technologically-advanced humanity fights on a thousand fronts against aliens, heretics, mutants and demons, everyone still thinks axes are cool.

The novel focuses on the battle between the Dark Hunters, a chapter of genetically-engineered Space Marines, and their deadly rivals, the Punishers. Unusually for a debut novelist in the setting, the Black Library will be publishing the novel in hardcover, presumably out of recognition for the quality of Kearney's former work. The title of the novel suggests that sequels are hoped for.

The novel will be published on 7 May 2015.